Tired icons of the 1960s and ’70s have faded into obscurity. Faux wood paneling? Gone. Pet Rocks? Forgotten. Two-hour baseball games? Outta here. Institutional racism? Uh...yeah. Well, we’re still kinda working on that one.
Hey, at least we got rid of leisure suits. So, score! And we stashed all those home fondue kits in the dark recesses of some closet, never to be seen again. Indeed, the demise of shared meals of melted cheese and bread was so complete, Smithsonian decided to record fondue for posterity by adding a set to the National Museum of American History collection.
But hang on just a minute. Original fondue pots are a hit on eBay. You can buy new ones at big box retail outlets—and Grocery Outlet, for that matter. People post fondue images on social media. What gives?
“It’s becoming more and more popular, especially in this weather,” says Nargis Lengacher, owner of Lugano Swiss Bistro in Carmel’s Barnyard.
You see, shag carpeting and network television slowly vanished from our collective national memory. However, our relationship with fondue has proven more durable. There was a revival in the early ’90s, for example.
And in 1998, Rick Rodgers came out with a cookbook specific to the style. In Fondue: Great Food to Dip, Dunk, Savor and Swirl he asserted that the pots were international in scope. Again in the early 2000s, interest in the Swiss staple soared.
In 2002, Entertainment Weekly listed fondue sets—essentially a sturdy pot, some long and narrow forks and a stand to support a Sterno can—as the number two Christmas gift of the year.
A decade ago, interest also grew. And it might be primed for another resurgence. Lengacher points out that when first-time guests look at Lugano’s menu, a round of excited smiles and “we didn’t knows” ensues. And when I mentioned fondue to Bradley Anderson, a trend-setting restaurateur in Dallas, his response was equally full of anticipation.
“As soon as you mentioned fondue I got hungry,” he says. “Sounds like an excellent idea.”
Why the fuss? Well, fondue is simple, comforting, communal and versatile.
It can be traditional, as in the pots of melted cheese cut with white wine and fruit liqueur made famous by the Swiss. At Lugano, the staple involves Gruyere, Emmentaler and Appenzeller. But they also serve a Gorgonzola version, as well as a tomato-infused cheese.
With cheese fondue, bread is the more common dip, though fruit and vegetables are also popular.
Fondue bourguignonne involves slivers of meat, held in heated oil instead of cheese and is considered French in origin. “Even in Switzerland it’s more popular than it used to be,” Lengacher observes...although for some reason, the notion of flame and oil on tables in a restaurant of wood struck her as not such a great idea. Lugano substitutes broth (similar to Asian hot pots, but with wine).
These can involve beef, pork, chicken, seafood, sausage—whatever.
And then there’s chocolate fondue. Either way, these are familiar foods. And the pot becomes a centerpiece with individuals gathered around, dipping at their leisure.
It all sounds good, when you think about it. One wonders why fondue ever fell out of favor.
During the late ’60s and early ’70s, it seemed as if every household of at least modest aspiration to appear “with it” owned a fondue set and hosted occasional gatherings. Then around 1974, the pot party came to an end.
There could be several culprits to this collapse. Cookbooks and magazines of the time made fondue-ing seem difficult, potentially explosive or even downright creepy.
For some reason a theory went around—repeated by various authors—that only white wine, kirsch or herbal tea should be served with cheese fondue. Make the mistake of downing a cold beverage and the cheese would solidify painfully in your stomach, or so the thinking went.
Yeah. Remember those fatal Pop Rocks? Poor Mikey. He shoulda stuck to cereal.
As for fondue’s degree of difficulty, writers apparently thought the sight of a pot, melted cheese, long sticks and hunks of bread would leave Americans gaping and confused. So in his 1966 cookbook Feasts for All Seasons, Roy Andreis de Groot left very detailed instructions.
“Impale a piece of bread on the fork, passing the points through the white crumb first, then firmly embedding them in the crust...As the bread is lifted from the fondue it is twisted until it stops dripping, then quickly brought over to the diner’s plate, which is held out to meet it, and allowed to cool for a second or two.”
The creepy aspect? Well, you know those Sling streaming service commercials with the “slingers”? In his The Tastemakers: Why We’re Crazy For Cupcakes But Fed Up With Fondue, David Sax linked the popularity of fondue in the ’60s with America’s sexual revolution.
“You hear its name and picture ski lodges...cracking fireplaces, shag carpets, and Burt Reynolds lying there, shirtless and with a long-stemmed fork in his hand,” he wrote.
But perhaps the near death of fondue can be explained without reference to chest hair and suburban swingers. More likely it was caused by granola, yogurt, Euell Gibbons—forager and the face of Grape-Nuts—low fat diets, low carb diets, Jim Fixx—the jogging craze is well-documented in Forrest Gump—and the general health-consciousness that took over...until that ’80s cocaine thing.
Why fondue became so popular in the first place is a more intriguing—perhaps even sinister—tale, if the stories of Swiss cheese cartel thugs can be believed.
Yes, cheese thugs.
In 2015, NPR sent Robert Smith to Geneva to ask about the notorious Swiss Cheese Union. His simple line of questioning caused the same kind of fear instilled by Doug and Dinsdale Piranha.
Monty Python. Look it up.
Smith: Have you ever heard of the Swiss Cheese Union?
Unidentified Woman: No, never.
Smith: No one talks about the Swiss Cheese Union?
Unidentified Woman: Never, no.
Smith went on to report that “cheese people” in Switzerland became defensive when pressed about the cartel, giving evasive answers. He then ran into a historian—Dominik Flammer—who explained “They don’t want to talk to you because they are the survivors of this Swiss Cheese Union, more or less.”
Essentially, fondue began as a peasant dish centuries ago—a way to use stale bread and to survive bitter Alpine winters when the snow was too deep for residents to venture out to Trader Joe’s.
Scratch that last bit.
In the wake of World War One, the Swiss Cheese Union formed, intent on increasing the sale and consumption of local cheese for a broader European market. They enticed the innocent peasant dish to the big city and made it a star—in 1930 convincing the government to declare fondue Switzerland’s national dish. They continued with marketing campaigns that eventually reached the U.S.
Behind fondue’s benign and growing charm, the cartel’s thugs began ganging up on cheesemakers in Switzerland, “requesting” they produce only Emmentaler and other fondue-related cheeses.
Geez—this would make a great Hollywood script. And it has a happy ending: The Swiss Cheese Union broke apart in the 1990s, never to trouble fondue again.
And fondue appears to have survived quite nicely. As Americans have gained in global culinary awareness, they began to realize that other cultures offered communal cooking pot dishes—that such things were staples, not suburban fads. And they began to discover other melty cheese options, such as Raclette.
“More people are aware—a lot more people travel,” Lengacher explains. “In Switzerland it never really went away.”
And it’s been a staple at Lugano for their entire 23 years of operation. It’s even the restaurant’s most popular item in terms of sales.
So—Burning Question. Maybe fondue will never again reach a ’60s frenzy. But we keep returning to its charms.
And you know something? Those ’60s and ’70s looks weren’t so bad, after all. At least people from that generation won’t be looking back on an obsession with man-buns, goat yoga and kale chips.